CHINESE LAUNDRY 

  The Chinese family screened by a wall of steam 
  Soaks its pride in white bleach 
  Scrubs the ring around the collar of racial slurs 
  Rinses with its tears of humiliation 
  Presses with the starch of its courage

© Jocelyne Verret (e-poem) 
from PEOPLE FROM HERE AND AFAR Collection Littart,
Edmonton, Alberta, CANADA



       The Chinese laundry was the major occupation of early Chinese immigrants. Because of the circumstances under which Chinese immigrants of that period came to America, many of them had few choices then but to run laundries. Operating a laundry required relatively little capital, little education, little English ability, and it was something that Whites did not at least initially, try to prevent them from doing. Chinese hand laundries sprang up all over the U, S., in small as well as in large cities during the first half of the twentieth century. Even though they were owned individually, there was an unmistakable look to most Chinese hand laundries, as if they were franchises. 

       Most of them had red store window signs stating the name of the laundry such as Loo Ling Laundry in large black block letters with gray shadowing. All of them used tickets printed with some Chinese characters on them, and probably purchased from the same printer in Chicago. Then by the 1950s they died out like the dinosaurs did, partly because of the widespread availability of automatic washing machines made for self-service laundromats and for homes. Moreover, easier to clean clothing made from materials such as permanent press, were becoming available. Another contributing factor to the demise of the Chinese laundry was simply that the children of laundrymen were able to enter professional and business roles with their high levels of education that ironically had been made possible by the sacrifice and support of their parents who labored in these laundries.
 

Sam Lee Laundry

      Our laundry was very similar to but also very different from those I saw in other Chinese laundries. The storefront was rather wide, about 25 feet, in comparison to some of the hole-in-the-wall Chinese laundries I have seen over the years. It was also much deeper, probably over 100 feet from front door to back door. On the left front side of the store, wrapped packages of finished laundry were stacked on several shelves awaiting pickup. To the side was a dressing room where male customers could wait for their business or dress trousers to be pressed by steam while they waited. 

      Unlike all other Chinese laundries I have seen, we did not have a front counter with tall vertical iron bars from counter top rising almost to the ceiling similar to the bars at bank teller windows in those days designed to protect the teller from the customer. These barriers were intended to protect the often sole occupant, the defenseless Chinese laundryman, from physical assaults and robbery
     
        Unknown to me when I was growing up and living above it,  Sam Lee Laundry had been operated by other Chinese as early as 1885 at the same Mulberry Street location.  The archival image on the left from a 1906 postcard shows our laundry building on the right edge of the photograph.  Below it is how I remember the laundry in the 1940s and early 1950s when I was living in Macon.The top right photograph that I took on a visit in 1976 shows that the laundry was no longer in business and the building (in the middle of the block) had a face lift and housed a loan or financial business. 

 

On my next visit to Macon in about 2004, I was dismayed to learn that the building that housed Sam Lee Laundry for about 75 years had been razed for a parking lot behind me.  A few years later, matters "improved" for the site as a two story enclosed parking structure replaced the open air parking lot.